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The course of life

When you, in the evening of your life, look back on its course, you’ll almost certainly see something completely different than what you’d possibly imagined in the morning of it. And perhaps those differences are greater the richer your life was in experience and the evening richer in memories. The course of life is a river that seeks its way through a capricious terrain, while the plan that we had designed probably more resembles a canal that we want to dig, a straight line that ignores the landscape. The plan exists within our head, the course of occurrences is the reality outside of it. Looking back on the course of life is gaining perspective for the difference between the two, and possibly contributes to our wisdom. The course of events is with some rights called the course of events because it is not our own course. Things ride a different track than our train of thoughts. And we say, that they went their own way or came tumbling down, because they are not in our hands.

Also in the expression ‘walk of life’ there is a commitment to a road as a metaphor for life. But here it concerns the way in which we, on our own steam and according to plan, move through life or walk through life as though it was a road, hesitating or determined, exemplary or offensive, but as the legitimate owners of that life and as subjects of that walk. The phrase suggest in its moralising use the existence of a line that we hold onto as a guideline, or a plan that we execute in our talking and walking. In ‘course of life’, life is the subject of the verb ‘to course’, and the living, whom life takes on its course, are the witness of the way it courses. Their resume, even if it is drafted for the purpose of the continuation of a pre-programmable career, is only for a small part the result of an outlined plan. My walk of life is what I do and how I do it, the course of my life is what happens to me or what happens with what I do. That too is not determined by my plan and not even by my walk of life.

Perhaps someone who is looking back does not see any line at all between all those points, and the line even is the great mistake of our imagination, as connection between two points, as the trace of a road that we intend to take and even as a reconstruction of the road we have walked and the course of life we can look back on. I think that Arthur Schopenhauer, who still had a good eye for what happens to people despite their plans, made far too brisk a statement on the course of life and the walk of life, when he seemingly forbade even a glance at by-roads and magnificent panoramas, that can be the gifts of a windy road: “In the same way that our physical way on earth is always a line, not a plane, so we must in life, if we want to achieve and own one thing, waive countless other things left and right and leave them. If we don’t make that decision, but like children at the fairground reach for everything that stimulates us, then that is a misdirected attempt to change the line of our road into a plane. We then walk in a zigzag, wander to and fro and come to nothing.” It would be that way, if the course of our life was our program, it it didn’t take us through a landscape, and if we didn’t have eyes to look about in it. The field of vision of the walker makes even a point into a plane. Who looks back, does not see a road, but what he saw along that road.

symbolism of the foot


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To wait

It is questionable if, by contemplation on the word ‘wait’, the impatience of those waiting in a line or on a list would be quelled. When there is also an encouragement to be patient and forbearing tied into it, the suspicion becomes obvious that such a contemplation is in service of those in power, who would intently make us wait to press upon us our dependence. For this is the type of thought we involuntary get when confronted with a respite we don’t understand the reason for. Impatience isn’t always the tyrannical demand to immediately be served: it can also be a clear insight into the tendency of some people to measure their weight by the laborious inertia with which they let all the rotors of their apparatus turn with each other, so that it does make an audible industrious crunching and humming, yet there is no detectable progress. ‘This slowness fits large affairs’ said Vondel, and he must have had in mind the ritual delays that bring those who wait to such rage and that are applied mostly by sectors that so humbly call themselves ‘care’ and ‘service’ to derive their sense of gruff importance from it.

If we in the meantime, doomed to wait anyway, dig deeper into the sound and provenance of the verb ‘to wait’, then we can imagine that there have to be two forms of ‘wait’, the one of those waiting in line and the other of ‘waiters’. Those who wait think they know what they’re waiting for, even if it is just the moment that a new time of waiting begins; and they’d like to reduce the time of waiting, the respite of fulfilment, to zero, for they see it as a loss and a needless delay. The other waiters are the waking, those who are awake. They don’t know what they are waiting for, or: in reality they are solely waiting for the unexpected that can occur at any time. Their attention isn’t geared towards time passing, but to a world where something unexpected, something dangerous or something wondrous, can happen. Our consciousness exist by the grace of such a wakefulness to the world; and wise people therefore also say that life is waiting, aimed at the opportunities that the moment will allow us and at what the future will bring us in surprises also without our interference. It can happen at any time; we never know when; we live in a lifelong postponement and in continuous dependence on forces we don’t know.

Possibly the intriguing difference between one waiting and the other or between waiting for and waiting on lies precisely in that knowledge and perception. That knowledge makes our respite into a useless room of which only boredom can be expected. It is harder to act patient and tolerant towards powers we think we know, that are comparable to us, and that we don’t want to subjugate ourselves to, than it is to take a wait-and-see stance facing the superiority of the anonymous reality and the impenetrable laws of nature or fate, that we are subject to without knowing how or why. An alert openness to an unknown future that cannot be filled in by us is more passive than to join a long and measurable queue, but it leaves less room for impatience, because there is no single way to actively get involved in it. Vigilant waiting seems to derive its contemplative purity from the powerlessness of the contemplator, from his willingness to succumb to a force majeure that always turns out to be more fascinating than something we can come up with ourselves.


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In Honour of what would have been his 87th birthday, a translation of one of hist most dear words and concepts.


About the provenance of the word ‘wonder’ only vague suspicions are uttered, according to dictionaries. I won’t list them, even if it is to prevent me from getting seduced into attaching consequences as to what the ‘real’ meaning of the word should be. That isn’t necessarily connected to its provenance. But it doesn’t escape me that the same thing happens with the word as with the matter that it relates to. For with what we call ‘wonder’, too, the provenance and the explanation withdraw from our eyes and we don’t succeed in including them into a series of causes and effects. Even more: those are completely irrelevant. Wonder breaks away from any framework. All attention falls on the pure fact that it is there and that it is like it is. Any explanation that would turn it into, remarkably, something usual and self-evident by being reducible to something else, is superfluous and fairly unwelcome when it concerns something we call a wonder. We don’t want it to be recalled into the ranks of mediocrity, in which it would disappear.

‘To wonder’, making something into wonder, is the name we give this attitude or this occurrence. Sometimes we also used the word ‘amazement’ and that too appears to express a certain speechlessness, an inability or unwillingness to declare something as usual. Wonder starts in any case with a delay of every explanation and that delay is its territory. On that territory we are purely contemplative and we remain that for a while that can’t be determined by us. Not only is every explanation suspended, but also every form of interfering. The wonder that we witness is stronger than us and our plans. It quiets us, not just in the sense of being ‘speechless’, but also in the meaning of ‘motionless’. In wonder we lose our grip on the world. And the wondrous thing there is that the moment of forced contemplation, in which the world gets a grip on us, we experience more as an enrichment and a relaxation than as a paralysing poverty. It is difficult to get used to that, for also getting used to things makes them ordinary, maybe to a higher degree than an explanation that reveals the cause.

Wonder is often explained out of a sort of habit as a a question and the word is understood, as is customary in English, as ‘to question wonderingly’. That seems a bad habit to me, for in wonder the question too falls silent. It is an undetermined delay of the question and it doesn’t originate as a question. Between speechless wonder and the question an attempt quickly shuffles in, mostly with impatient and not very contemplative people who can’t stand an ’empty moment’, to for the time being just find some connection to all that we are used to or that has already been explained. That reaction looks like the panic that breaks out as soon as there is an accident. Nobody knows what he needs to do, but everyone is convinced that something needs to be done.The question to the how and the why is an extension f our tendency to include the new as quickly as possible into the frame of what is already familiar. It assumes that there will be an answer in a short term and that wonder will give way again to the safe certainty that gives us grip on the world instead of handing us over to it.

george lotus-8634

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‘Soul’ is, in my eyes, the most dear, most helpless, most ambiguous, most misused and most ridiculed word in our language. When someone acknowledges the existence of the separate soul, next to and above the body, they’ll probably be met with some skepticism. For we can’t see the soul and what we can’t see, we’re better of doubting or denying, according to a popular way of thinking, even if this denial would only contribute to the bareness of our existence. Then the soul quickly becomes, as a product of systematic and constructive thinking, one of the superfluous hypotheses. But when we call a diligent and enthusiastic person the ‘soul’ of a company, we can count on some understanding. For then we don’t use the word with the crushing literal-mindedness that always instigates some skepticism in thinkers. For they are most critical about anything they suspect they could have come up with themselves and they seem to prefer living with a barren truth than with an illusion. But we can only dream up such a choice.

So in order to be taken seriously ourselves we have to, remarkably, not take the word ‘soul’ too seriously or literally and therefore also distance ourselves a little from the word’s weight and gravity. It means that we in our use of the word already take into account the skepticism that it might incur. So what can this intellectual offer mean, when we don’t regard it as a simple concession to the triumphantly ruling, but on closer inspection arid banality, that without any reflection seems to come to the same findings? Perhaps ‘soul’ is in its literalness too big a word to simply reduce it to worn out coins of change in conversation. But it doesn’t seem too absurd to me to think, that the word precisely in its literalness, as an indication of the core of a person, as a principle of life or even as an immortal element, doesn’t do justice to what we mean when we for example talk about the ‘soul’ of a company or a beloved one, that the word therefore is always an image. It indeed seems too big for literalness, for its meaning always goes royally above and beyond that.

Does this mean, that ‘soul doesn’t denote reality? Thinking in terms of a living core and a separately existing substance, it to me seems fairly dubious. But when we think with the word about the unique character and inconvertibility of every individual person and especially of the fact, that a living being is not just a convertible part of a whole, an item on a long list, but something that exists outside of our thoughts and is a living, unthinkable reality, the case changes and then the emphasis isn’t on the word as a product of thought and order, but on something that evades that, on an element of inconceivability in an existence of which we in the end are merely surprised witnesses. That is pre-eminently what we call existence. There is therefore a lot to say for the thesis that the skepticism surrounding the word ‘soul’ is not based on realism or a desire for reality, however it may turn out to be, but on the contrary on the will to manipulate it and to deny the existence of everything that resists that, first and foremost the soul.

Cornelis Verhoeven

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In my opinion ‘if’ is the most philosophical and at the same time also -and perhaps precisely because of this- the most honed conjunction. It is often regarded as a little word for dreamers who want to put up a border around reality in its coincidental appearance against everything that could just as well be possible, or would be. With ‘if’ we preface assumptions that have to do with that. That way it contributes to a dislocation of obviousness, which is a pre-eminently philosophical activity. Sometimes all that’s needed for it is a trifle. If for example Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, Pascal thought, the whole face of the earth would have changed. People with a sense of reality, or at least with a sense of the way they have to come across as though they have a realistic view of things, don’t want to hear of such talk. They refuse to entertain questions that begin with ‘if’ and they’ve learned from their grandparents that if the skies fall, we all wear blue hats. Especially vigorous administrators have a dislike of questions that start with ‘if’. Even though the word belongs to the verbal package of the foresight that government is supposed to be, they prefer to just see to it when we get there and therefore to dispense of foresight and prefer to decisively react in the moment itself, so to improvise rather than to foresee.

There is an ‘if’ as in ‘in case of’ in which the future and its foresight are the subject; and there is an ‘if’ that relates to the past, so two types of ‘if this happens’ and ‘if this happened or had happened’. The first one is called realis, not because it really happens, but because the speaker leaves open the possibility that it will happen sooner or later, and the second is called irrealis, because the speaker is convinced that it hasn’t happened and can not happen anymore. He complies with its inevitable consequences, but is aware that it might as well could have happened. In the case of Cleopatra’s nose, Pascal was speaking in the irrealis. And when I say ‘if I lived in the middle ages’, I thereby express that I can only dream of that, but it also gives me a certain perspective on the life I lead now, not on the way I should arrange it, but on the fascinating coincidences that make it like it is now. Sentences with ‘if’ are always about the present. They give relief to a reality against a background of possibilities of which we’re trying to form an image.

Because decisive and practical realists appear not to dream and because they mix up dreaming and contemplating and realis and irrealis, to them everything that seems to be reality also seems to be obvious, and thoughts of all that is not reality, are then also nonsense. In their eyes nothing could have been different from what it became. That it, coincidentally or not, is what it is, means that it must be that way too. That it was a hair’s width and everything would have been completely different or hadn’t existed at all, does not seem to matter to them; that it does exist and is what it is, they undergo without any trace of surprise. Or maybe, I think in an attempt to save a piece of their soul, they just pretend, to restrain others from plunging into the abyss of wonder?


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We say that someone ‘rises’ when he gets up from a seating or laying position by himself. When that happens from a bed or a chair, we simple call it ‘to rise’, when it happens from a situation of subjection, we call it ‘rise against’, and when it happens from death, we speak of ‘resurrection’. And for this last and most mysterious word we have to follow the most complicated trains of thoughts to comprehend it a little. All metaphors of rising have to be called in, those of sleep from which we rise, those of rising against and those of resurrection from death. In waking up we deny sleep, in rising against we deny subjection, and in the thought of resurrection death is denied. And because death seems to be the most definitive of all those horizontal situations, denying it is our toughest job and the rising from the dead is for us the most incomprehensible miracle. We can think for a long time about the old analogy of death with sleep, and we can, like Pascal did, consider that rising from the dead is no greater miracle than birth, but we can’t get so far as to think of it as self-evident.

Why do we for the length of history deny death or compare it to the sleep from which we rise again every morning? We apparently have a compelling motif for it that doesn’t exactly coincide with the attachment to our own existence. Shall we call it love? When we love someone, do we do anything else than to confirm the existence of that person so absolutely that we can’t think of our own existence without them? ‘To love someone’, said Gabriel Marcel, ‘is to say: you shall not die.’ And when the impossible happens still and we see that person laying there, cold and powerless, we can’t just revoke that absolute statement. When we love someone, they have to stay. When it has all appearances that they have left, they will have to return sooner or later and death can at most be a provisional state. The thought of the resurrection and the return seems to have been prompted by hopelessness or hope against all odds. But what do we know of death and what reasons do we have not to rise against it?

We rise from sleep by ourselves, when we wake or are awoken by someone else. From what we think we know of death in any case is that it is a total powerlessness and that the deceased, crushed by an ascendancy, won’t wake up and rise by their own powers. We can try to keep them alive in our memories, but in doing so we give them a vague and shadowy existence which depends on us and after at most a generation of loving remembering is doomed to sink into oblivion. We would like to perform the miracle of resurrection and rising from the dead, but we are as powerless against death as the dead themselves. And whether we are deeply religious, skeptic or agnostic, as the biggest miracle we can think of the resurrection is never a self-evident matter. The thought of it or the believe in it is more a resistance against against every form of self-evidence. If it concerns a dogma here, it is about time that this dogma too rises from the dead as an object of thought. Any belief that becomes an automatism, is a disbelief.

*Translators note: ‘to rise’, as in to get up, is ‘opstaan’ in dutch; to rise against, as in to revolt, is ‘opstand’; and the resurrection, rising from the dead, is ‘opstanding’. The three words are in Dutch more connected than they are in English, but I think the thread and theme are strong enough to warrant translation.


from the diary Cornelis Verhoeven kept on the language of his children.

“You are sweet, papa, you have to stay alive”

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With the word ‘spirituality’ i still involuntarily think of monasteries or congregations and of the subtle differences that used to exist between them. For that is the context in which i’ve gotten to know the word. There was for example a benedictine, a dominican and a franciscan spirituality. That way of ecclesiastical life or that mentality could be more or less described by experts and even in its effects be read on faces, but it was mostly a matter of empathy and inner kindredness. I never got really far into that myself, but i think i remember that ‘redemptorists’ had a somewhat creaky voice and strong-willed chins because of their high collars. But despite those odd memories the word ‘spirituality’ has remained extraordinarily dear to me and the value of spirituality has never become the object of any skepticism. For it has to do with the characteristic of being ‘spiritual’ and therefore isn’t completely dictated by things that are material, worldly and fashionable, but more by an interest of matters of the mind -to put it solemnly. With that comes firstly the refusal to deduce those matters to more superficial affairs. In which way and within which tradition a person is spiritual is then already much less relevant and i assume that there is little interest for it outside of the convents.

Why the word had been used so little for a while i couldn’t say with certainty, but it is possible that it is related to the fact that it used to be connected to some explicitly religious and clerical associations. Lots of people seem to have become allergic to that. Despite that, for the last couple of years i’ve been seeing the word more often and it seems as though the religious pressure has been lifted off of it. It still fits very well for religious affairs, but it looks as though a spiritual dimension has been discovered outside of religion, for example in austerity, a culture in which the environment is spared and the destructive tendencies of commercialism and consumption are acknowledged. But what was predictable, has in the meantime happened: for spirituality too a market was discovered. And if there’s one thing that isn’t spiritual, it is a market. The word will therefore probably not be around for long, even when different brands of spirituality start competing, like they did in the old days. In this situation spirituality can show how resistant it is. If it turns out not to be, it will rightfully be discarded as one of the uncountable fashions that are based solely on imitation and have no content of their own. Then it would have to start again as a hidden, inner life.

Austerity as a spiritual attitude and a characteristic of a spiritual life has long been preached, perhaps solely to justify a poverty that was considered inevitable. In a time of poverty it then becomes almost something suspect, but in times of plenty it gets the chance to become a style of living that cannot simply be reduced to a lack of fat and vitamins. Spirituality, from my point of view, is mostly a matter of style, and style is at its best when it is a voluntary restriction of available means, therefore a form of austerity. The new spirituality has possibly risen from a resistance to a style-less submission to the dumb fat and wallowing in consumptive abundance. For this abundance feeds an insatiable gluttony and develops into a form of poverty to which there is no end. Spirituality represents the style that can limit this.

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